Since the onset of the HandyDart strike, UBC counselling psychology instructor Vaughan Marshall has been teaching three-hour classes in her rain gear.
A single mother who has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis since she was a teenager, Marshall told the Georgia Straight that she regularly used HandyDart—a service set up to help people disabled to the extent that they can’t use regular transit—before its drivers began striking on October 26. She commutes from the side of the campus she lives on to the other. Now she has to travel the whole distance in her power wheelchair.
Marshall also has to get to the G. F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre on Laurel Street so she can teach vocational rehabilitation courses part-time. Things were supposed to be better for people like Marshall and the system’s estimated 30,000 users, after TransLink contracted out the 27-year-old HandyDart service to the for-profit MVT Canadian Bus Inc.
In October 2008, MVT—a subsidiary of California-based MV Transportation Inc.—was awarded a $113-million contract to run the HandyDart system in Metro Vancouver for three years. Within 10 months of MVT’s takeover of the system on January 1, however, the HandyDart operators went on strike.
“For several months, I thought, ”˜Okay, we’re in a transition period and things are going to get better,’ ” Marshall said of MVT. “Things have not gotten any better. I’m really busy, I work more than full-time, and I’m a single parent. I don’t have time. It’s so disrespectful of people’s time to keep people waiting.”
HandyDart’s Vancouver founder, Tim Louis, called it “utterly dreadful” that MVT is in a labour dispute with Local 1724 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents HandyDart workers. Assessing the impact of the work stoppage on people’s lives, the former Coalition of Progressive Electors city councillor and park board commissioner recalled the 2001 transit strike.
“As bad as that was, there were other alternatives: hitchhike or hop in a car with a friend,” Louis told the Straight. “With the thousands of people in the Greater Vancouver area that use HandyDart, people that don’t have the ability to hitchhike or to hop in a car, the alternatives are very few or none. What that means is we have got thousands of people literally homebound as a result of the labour dispute.”
Louis added in a later call that Vancouver never had a HandyDart work stoppage before MVT came into the picture.
ATU Local 1724 vice president Tim Johnston told the Straight that HandyDart workers have always supported Louis’s vision of having several nonprofit societies running the service. Now TransLink has brought about the amalgamation of the regional nonprofits into a private “one-service provider,” he noted.
MVT has proposed hourly wages of $21 “upon ratification” and $21.25 effective January 1, 2010, according to figures MVT spokesperson Zdenka Buric e-mailed to the Straight.
But Johnston said this is not retroactive, and he added that a SkyTrain worker makes $28 an hour standing on a platform checking tickets. Johnston has driven for HandyDart for 17 years and has two sisters in the same job. He said they try not to talk shop with each other in private because of how steamed they are about what’s going on in the workplace.
“Our main issues are definitely pension,” Johnston said. “They are trying to eliminate our pension. They are trying to eliminate, or reduce, our benefits.”¦There are several other issues, but they are insignificant compared to these major ones.”
Both Marshall and Louis agree with Local 1724’s position that MVT should agree to binding arbitration.
The Straight asked Buric if this was a possibility, and she replied: “Not at this time.”
TransLink spokesperson Ken Hardie told the Straight the regional transportation authority’s hands are tied.
“We have no legal right to do that,” Hardie said by phone of bringing MVT to arbitration. “They are a contractor. We don’t run their business.”¦We have no legal standing in this regard.”
Marshall said she is so furious about the strike that she wants TransLink to punt MVT and negotiate a new contract with another party.
Numbers behind the HandyDart strike
> HandyDart drivers’ current hourly wage: $20.25
> Wage MVT is offering: $21 upon ratification, $21.25 in 2010
> Wage ATU Local 1724 is demanding: $25.35
> Percentage of HandyDart employees covered under existing pension plan: 60%
> Percentage of HandyDart employees ATU wants covered under pension plan: 100%
> What MVT is offering: all employees move to self-directed RRSPs in lieu of pension plans
Sources: ATU Local 1724 vice president Tim Johnston, MVT spokesperson Zdenka Buric